ARDS and North Down is now dumping as much rubbish as Belfast – despite the city having more than twice as many people in it. And the council is rapidly running out of space to bury the area’s trash as landfill, with a senior official stating that the local authority ‘is being backed into a corner’ as the 18-month recycling crisis continues to spiral out of control. Local officials now say that a radical revamp of their entire waste system, including both household bin collections and operations at the borough’s nine Household Recycling Centres (HRCs), will be needed to halt the problem. “The last year-and-a-half shows a reversal of our fortunes,” admitted environment director, David Lindsay, at a council meeting last Wednesday night. REPORTS investigating a series of ways out of the recycling crisis are currently being prepared by Ards and North Down Council officials. According to council environment director David Lindsay, reports on different options for radical reform of the local authority’s systems will be delivered to the leaders of the major political parties on the council in the near future. Usually, reports and briefings are handed to party leaders in advance of going to all politicians and the public because they contain very serious issues, or advice about extremely controversial moves that the council needs to make. It allows political parties to thrash out their positions in advance of debates, giving them time to negotiate behind the scenes and try to avoid holding huge arguments in public – but in this case, what solutions could be listed in those reports? Over the past few years the council has had a number of controversies around both its bin collections and access to household recycling centres (HRCs), and it’s possible that any or all of those contentious ideas could be back on the menu now radical change is needed to halt the recycling crisis. Back in 2020, the council voted to experiment with dropping collections of grey general rubbish bins back to only once per month. The hugely controversial move was intended to push the public into recycling more, with officials stating that almost two-thirds of the rubbish in grey bins should be sorted into recycling instead. Monthly bin collections collapsed when a Stormont grant meant to pay for a trial version of the scheme fell through – but with the council now losing money hand over fist in landfill costs and hefty fines on the horizon, the idea could be back on the table. Five tiny HRCs along the Ards peninsula collectively add up to 11% of the usage of recycling centres in the borough, and are considered to be both too small and too out of date to properly manage modern demands. Before the pandemic, the council floated the idea of closing them to make way for a single new purposebuilt facility that would serve the whole peninsula, a suggestion that proved enormously unpopular with the area’s residents and politicians. In summer 2020 the council cut opening hours at Bangor’s HRC, by far the busiest in the borough and by itself responsible for 45% of recycling centre usage in Ards and North Down, in order to keep those five tiny peninsula facilities open full time. The sheer numbers of that – twofifths of the borough’s population losing all evening access to their HRC, in order to improve hours where there is a fraction of the demand – may cause the council to take another look at the peninsula HRCs. In autumn last year, council officials suggested limiting access to all HRCs to just six visits per year for everyone in the borough. It was shot down by outraged politicians, but the potential is there for the idea to make a comeback. And at last week’s council meeting, one councillor suggested setting up inspectors at HRC gates to check that everyone arriving has an address in this borough and is sorting their rubbish correctly. Although environment director David Lindsay didn’t reveal any details about what crisis solutions could be in the eventual reports, he did state that a huge range of ideas – including inspectors at HRCs – are in the mix and will be evaluated by officials before formal recommendations are put forward. Council almost out of space for landfill as recycling crisis gets even worse We dump as much as Belfast “We had been doing quite well; for the first four or five years [of the council’s life] we had been moving forwards, but we hit a plateau for a period and now, worryingly, we’re going backwards.” Mr Lindsay added that over the last three months, HRCs in Ards and North Down took in the same tons of rubbish as the Belfast City Council area. “Belfast Council’s population is two-and-a-half times ours, and yet they took the same amount of waste into HRCs as we did,” he said. “That figure in itself shows in absolute, stark terms that there is a major problem.” Currently Ards and North Down is recycling just 48% of its waste, meaning the council is failing to meet minimum legal standards and may be hit with sanctions including hefty fines. Making matters worse, minimum legal standards are set to go up, with at least 65% of the borough’s waste to be recycled while at most 10% can go to landfill. “Those are challenging targets and they will not be achieved in an incremental fashion, they will require some sort of significant step change,” said Mr Lindsay. “It’s not tinkering at the edges, we really need significant reform in the shape and design of our services.” The environment director said the council is running out of space to dump rubbish, stating: “We are fast being backed into a corner. “Even if we wanted to keep landfilling waste, which we don’t, landfill capacity is rapidly diminishing.” The latest in a line of theories about the cause of the crisis suggested by the council over the last 18 months is that local businesses have found ways to circumvent van bans in HRCs, and are dumping large amounts of construction, industrial and trade waste in facilities meant for household trash. Said Mr Lindsay: “Vans and large trailers require a permit [to get into HRCs]; other than that, you can go in and out without any restriction. “There is an altered pattern of how trade and business waste is getting into the sites under the radar.” At last week’s council meeting, several politicians reacted with horror to the news that the recycling crisis continues to deepen. UUP councillor Phillip Smith called for ‘radical action’ to fix the situation, while DUP alderman Stephen McIlveen commented: “Things seem to have gone wrong for us where they haven’t gone wrong in other council areas; [we need to see] where we’ve gone wrong and where they’re getting it right.” The council has been trying and failing to get to grips with the problem since summer 2020. It has put forward several now-discounted theories for the crisis, variously blaming people from outside the borough dumping waste in local HRCs, increased visitors at tourism hotspots, and locals redecorating their houses during lockdown. Galloping landfill costs from the recycling crisis are responsible for much of this year’s 2.75% rates rise, and over the past 18 months Ards and North Down’s recycling and landfill rates have plummeted from one of the best performing The household recycling centre in Portaferry. boroughs in Northern Ireland to one of the worst.